The Star-Ledger, NJ
by John Farmer
Friday, July 01, 2005
Dick Cheney is by far the most fascinating figure in the Bush administration, the force behind its hard-right ideology and the principal proponent and defender of the war in Iraq. So when his office called the other day I was, naturally, intrigued.
Seems the veep had a beef. Something I wrote about reports that he and his staff hounded CIA analysts to provide intelligence supporting the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Not true, said a spokeswoman in Cheney's office, who cited the Silberman-Robb Commission report as having pronounced the administration clean as a hound's tooth. And, in truth, it found no evidence that analysts were pressured by the administration.
For that matter, neither did Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. But since his committee also postponed any deep look into the White House's use or misuse of intelligence on Iraq, its work could be viewed as bearing a heavy coat of whitewash. Indeed, the Knight-Ridder wire service on Oct. 31, 2003, reported that staffers in Cheney's office urged Roberts to block any probe of whether the White House misused intelligence on Iraq. Blame the CIA, they reportedly advised.
But alas, that's hardly the whole story about whether the Bush administration -- and Cheney in particular -- had cooked the books on Iraq.
The most dramatic claim that the administration manipulated evidence to justify the war came from George W. Bush's best buddies, the British. The Downing Street memo, an account of a July 23, 2002, meeting of Tony Blair's Cabinet -- marked "SECRET AND STRICTLY PERSONAL - UK EYES ONLY" -- reports that the head of Britain's foreign intelligence service, identified only as "C," believed the Bush team had indeed cooked the books.
The London Sunday Times said the memo noted that "C" (actually Richard Dearlove, the MI6 spy chief) reported on his recent talks in Washington to Blair. The memo had C saying that "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The memo went on to note that the Bushies had "no patience" with the United Nations and little interest in "the aftermath of military action." But the eye-grabber was C's conclusion that "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
The question naturally arises: Who "fixed" the facts and intelligence? The memo mentions no names. So why is Cheney so often mentioned as the most likely culprit? In part because of his known eagerness to attack Iraq. But also because people associated with the intelligence community around Washington, either publicly or anonymously, tend to finger him as the villain.
Ray McGovern, a CIA analyst for 27 years, has written frequently about the visits of Cheney and his surrogates, notably his chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to the CIA to talk with analysts about intelligence findings on Iraq. The visits, according to McGovern, were unprecedented and intended to influence intelligence judgments. McGovern is an unapologetic critic of the vice president, which may or may not be reason to discount his charges. But Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer, backs McGovern's charges.
Cannistraro, citing current CIA analysts, maintains that the Bush White House pressed the agency to produce evidence linking Saddam to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden -- a clear misuse of the 9/11 tragedy. Cheney and Libby visited midlevel analysts at CIA headquarters, seeking support for a war in Iraq, according to Cannistraro. Cheney, in particular, he has written, "insisted that desk officers were not looking hard enough for the evidence."
Cheney, for all his shrewdness, has become a liability as a spokesman on Iraq, not only because of suspicions about his relations with the CIA and its analysts but because of his long list of lousy judgments.
They began with his claim that Saddam had "reconstituted" his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. There was his prediction that U.S. troops would be greeted as "liberators." Later he found -- no one else has -- "mobile laboratories" for making chemical and biological weapons. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary -- the 9/11 commission report, for one -- Cheney regularly has implied that Saddam was somehow implicated in 9/11: "There was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda that stretched through most of the 1990s," as he told one interviewer.
More recently, a day before some 30 Iraqis were killed in car bombings, he pronounced the insurgency as in its "last throes." Bad timing, that.
The sad part of Cheney's tattered credibility is that one claim he makes incessantly is the absolute truth -- that if we lose in Iraq we will fuel the fires of terrorism. Sure it was the Bush-Cheney war that made Iraq a recruitment poster for terrorism. But that doesn't diminish the truth of his warning. Trouble is, he's damaged goods as a spokesman for the cause.
What it all adds up to is this: Dick Cheney or someone on his staff was unhappy with my first account of his role in fashioning the intelligence product used to justify the war in Iraq and wanted a more balanced version. Now they've got it.
John Farmer is The Star-Ledger's national political correspondent.
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